The size (dimension) factor in modern compact digital camera

(Picture fromWeb source)

35mm film (135) format cameras of the latest century have represented for most of the photographers the finest representation of a compact photo device. Highly practical,  very versatile, more ergonomic, relatively cheap and always innovative until the beginning of the digital era. But even considering all these interesting factors and others not mentioned here their size remains the most conclusive element of success during all these times of using traditional negative and transparency films.

In fact the size factor is not only an intemporel data regarding the design of cameras it is also a decisive one. Today we are facing the same dilemma for digital photographic tasked devices. What is the magic formula in terms of weight and dimensions? The answer is that there is no need to reinvent the calculations because that has been done several times already on several studies and the results are always approaching the same compact size package. A package that have been definite early by pioneers like Oskar Barnack with its Leica (although he was first using 35mm film but with a bit narrower negative frame format).

What we learn with experience is that the picture frame format is far less relevant to the photographic users than the size (and weight) of the camera. The models which are transgressing that moto will soon or later be put aside one way or another. It is a very unforgiving market law.

With the introduction of the OM-1 (M-1) in 1972 Olympus has redefined
the Leica concept to 35mm (135) SLRs (Picture from Web source)

During the last two or three decades of the SLR era we have observed two major successives tendencies. At first a general trend to downsize SLRs initiated mainly by the introduction of the Olympus OM series ( OM-1 in 1972) followed by most of the other manufacturers ( Pentax M series, Nikon E, FM & FE series, Canon A series, etc.) This trend has been succeeded by the extended automation of the functionalities of the camera like exposure metering, motorized film advance, ISO auto-indexing and even more significantly the auto-focusing. All these change have induced the creation of bulkier camera that were using a lot of software and … battery power. The size of lenses also inflated a lot.  For sure there is a period that many photo enthusiasms were sharing the desire to be associated with camera models that were at first identified as professional apparentus.

Its about that time that the first attempts to substitute traditional 35mm SLRs by digital cameras appear. The new technology of digital image captor prevent the manufacturer to produce frame sensors of the 35mm size format equivalent. This is why they defend themselves by saying that DX (Nikon) or APS-C (Canon) were largely sufficient to do the job. And as a bonus the size of the cameras and lenses appear to be similar to the old film SLRs. Canon was the first to come back with a sensor size of approximately 24 X 36mm (comparable to the 135 film format). After a few years of denegations Nikon finally imitate Canon in that way. The big advantage for them was to be able to market again the old full line of lenses issued during the film era.

Today building a digital camera will face different new constraints. The image sensor and its processor will take the place of the old negative and its cartridge of the film era. You need to accommodate an LCD screen that can be act as a live viewfinder or a picture viewer for image review. automatic and regulator system are more sophisticated and rely on battery pack power. The heating issue mainly seen during video recording has to be addressed also. And not saying that you still have to design a camera that will withstand general and intensive uses in sometimes very adverse conditions. All those aspects have received special attentions from the manufacturer designed teams with success most of the time.

Today in 2017  the Olympus OM-D E-M5 Mark II is fully respecting
the weight and the  original dimensions of the 1972 OM-1.

But what about the sizes of the modern digital compact cameras. Two schools have emerged since a decade. The one that privilege the 24 X 36mm image frame format issued from the old 135 film (called falsely Full Format because full format image is in fact available in every formats…). The others that have chosen to exploit the “new” formats like APS-C and M4/3. These smaller formats combined with the electronic viewfinder (EVF) technology (first developed for videographers) are permitting much smaller designs that appear to be very similar in weight and dimensions to the former compact manual focus 35mm cameras. The two most mentioned arguments against them are the disparition of the traditional optical viewfinder (via a mirror box) and the more deep of field generated by smaller format frame dimensions. And each case advantages and disadvantages of each schools ( Mirror versus Mirrorless) tend to be gradually narrowed by technologic advancements.

But at the end you will finish with the size factor. And more and more photographers are choosing the compactness of the mirrorless models precisely for that. The picture quality output of the modern mirrorless can easily withstand the usual requirement of the virtual or printed publication even better than the traditional film of the past.

Every technological step of evolution encounter stiff resistance at its first introduction. But solutions of the past have never been eternal answers to the problematic of the future.